Thursday, August 20, 2009

7/17/2009: Math: The World’s Only Baloney-Free Zone, or, "Why isn’t this Bernstein fellow more famous?” or, "If only the quants had done the math"

E-mails from Amanda, who is happy with the reshot end credits, and Jeanne, who wrote that she would take a look next week. Success!

Spent a lot of time reading through D. J. Bernstein’s massive Web 1.0 outpouring at after seeing him linked in an InfoWorld article on software security. How is it possible that this man has not yet won a MacArthur fellowship? His site is pure HTML and PDF, with nary a drop of scripting anywhere. (Take that, Wordpress fans.) At 38, Dr. Bernstein has already produced a huge body of theoretical math/CS papers, software, and legal precedents (notably in battling software export control). Still, I grew tired of his endless rants against, and detailed accounts concerning, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and its bureaucracy. His writing style is that of an aggrieved, tone-deaf intellectual, and while I can certainly sympathize (having aspired to be just such a person for many years, not to mention having spent my graduate school years at sister institution UIUC), I eventually outgrew it. His emails to the various lawyers and paper-pushers sound exactly like the naive time-wasting and rational justifications I engaged in for about the first 36 years of my life—like him, I thought that explaining the facts should be sufficient to convince anybody of anything. Something about working as a federal government contractor eventually made me realize that either I could waste all my time railing against the system, or I could find a line of work that was more in alignment with my needs . . . hence my advance (though coworkers considered it a retreat) to the world of math teaching.

As I constantly tell my students, mathematics is the world’s only 100% baloney-free zone. Having been trained as a mathematician, I have no patience for
—rules that are on the books as window dressing only (not meant to be enforced)
—rules that are enforced, but only selectively or arbitrarily, as in a corrupt country
—rules (like much of the tax code, and like all of patent law) that are constructed so that their arcane meaning must be interpreted by a priesthood of highly paid practitioners
—forms written by people stupider than those who are supposed to fill them out (my favorite example: government forms requiring that no responses may be left blank and that all unknown answers must be estimated—from which one may logically conclude that an unknown phone number must be entered as 555-555-5555)
—legalized rackets: racial discrimination (now cleverly disguised, but still present), discrimination of various other types, medical insurance, the pharmaceuticals industry, patent thickets/cross-licensing, underpayment of employees in restaurants, real-estate appraisals, the real estate industry in general, professional sports (the way the owners shake governments down for hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium construction and tax deals), college sports (namely football and basketball, which lack the basic honesty of calling themselves professional sports), credit cards, college admissions, political “contributions,” outsourcing of government jobs, investment rating, and the granddaddy of them all, the “heads I win, tails you lose” derivatives market in which big financial risks have a private upside and a socialized downside.

Clearly, it is lucky that I live in the USA, since many of these problems are worse elsewhere. I also find it interesting that I am not nearly as bothered by illegal rackets. It is the hypocrisy and bald self-serving of legalized rackets that I cannot abide. True, I have been fortunate enough to have had no dealings with illegal rackets, and if I were being extorted for protection money or repeatedly shaken down for bribes, I would probably be somewhat more tolerant of legalized rackets—if for no other reason than that the legalized rackets usually avoid physical violence.

Also, by my characterization of the financial meltdown of 2008 as a racket, it is clear that I have nothing but contempt for Wall Street’s quantitative analysts, a.k.a. “quants,” the self-proclaimed geniuses who blithely trusted their phony math (brilliantly dissected in this speech given at my alma mater in May of 2008). These people are not mathematicians; they are empty suits with computers at their disposal. And if they were merely wrong and tremendously overpaid, that would be OK with me, except that it doesn’t stop there. Their colossal arrogance has created a financial catastrophe that falls mainly upon innocent people, especially in poor countries. The U.S. is getting off easy, though 15% unemployment in Michigan (and now 10% in DC, of all places!) seems painfully high to us.

Thus, instead of staging a quixotic fight against the lunacy of legalized rackets, or staying in government contracting and turning what I knew about that system to my advantage, I decided to spend my life doing something I believe in, where I have a realistic probability of success . . . not with all students, certainly, since in a good year I probably reach only half of them, but with enough that I can say that I have been a force for creativity and rationality. And even though I agree with almost everything Paul Lockhart wrote in his famous essay on math ed (recently expanded into a book), I have not yet become cynical or burned-out. (Apparently, neither has he, since he still teaches pure math at St. Ann’s, an independent K-12 school that tolerates his highly unconventional but thoroughly correct approach.) I have a goofy Spongebob Squarepants happiness when I am in front of the boys, and I think they know that. Sometimes, just sometimes, real magic happens in my math or statistics classroom.

Someday I would like to observe Lockhart in his classroom in Brooklyn. I suspect that what he does is similar to what I try to do, only better. Though he might disagree with my goal of putting much of my course content on LectureScribe-like videos, maybe if he knew my rationale he would support it. My goal is to offload some of the didactic content, so that more time in class can be spent doing what really matters: discussing math, discussing seemingly unrelated topics, conjecturing, playing games, and solving interesting problems.

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